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Credit: Peter Arkle

Two decades old this year, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has transformed the built environment by requiring “barrier-free” spaces across the country. On the other hand, the ADA’s language potentially alienates anyone not defined as “able.” According to the act, a disability refers to any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Many prefer more positive-sounding terms such as “universal design” and “design for all.” While words are important, the topic nevertheless suffers from a narrow focus on mobility. There is another, increasingly important aspect of “designing for all”: environmental health.

According to the U.S. Census, out of 54 million Americans who identify some type of “disability,” about 3 million use wheelchairs. But the number of those who suffer from chemical or respiratory ailments is dramatically higher. As much as 10.5 percent of the population (some 30.2 million people) suffers from asthma, says the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute—and indoor environments riddled with dust, mold, and allergens only exacerbate the problem. Studies conducted by the California and New Mexico state health departments found that 16 percent of respondents reported an “unusual sensitivity” to the chemicals common in everyday products, and that 2 to 6 percent had been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a potentially debilitating condition that stems from contact with low levels of toxins.

Putting healthier materials in buildings can make a big difference. For example, MCS sufferer and Oberlin College graduate James McConaghie gets sick if exposed to any of the standard chemicals found in new carpets, paints, and adhesives. Built using materials screened for certain toxins, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies was the only campus building where McConaghie could study safely while he was at Oberlin.

Yet LEED has only one credit related to material health: low-VOC products. Fortunately, there are better alternatives. The Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project offers a comprehensive guide to smart materials selection. Its filters include the Living Building Challenge’s Red List, which prohibits the use of 14 classes of chemicals, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s five Chemicals of Concern categories. Perhaps the most rigorous standard available, little-known among architects, is Clean Production Action’s Green Screen for Safer Chemicals. Any of these guides can expand the concept of “barrier-free” to include “toxin-free” and help create truly universal design.